Police have arrested a 17-year-old mixed-race high school dropout on charges of repeated arsons. The youth, born between a Korean father and a Russian mother in 1995, encapsulates the frustration, agony and mental ordeals mixed-racial kids face in pure-blood-boasting Korea.
He set fire to three homes in northern Seoul in one hour on March 3. He was “enjoying” the scene of firefighters struggling to extinguish the fire in a house he had started. As the firemen put out the fire, he walked two kilometers to set fire to another house. A surveillance camera spotted him. A month earlier, he was responsible for burning a building to ashes.
In January, he threw a gasoline bomb on his alma mater middle school. He said he committed arson in a fit of anger against his classmates for bullying him. He has been undergoing mental treatment. He was born while his father was studying in Moscow. Unfortunately, his father died suddenly. Together with his younger brother, he left behind his Russian mother and arrived in Korea when he was two years old. Communication with his Russian mother ended upon arriving in Seoul. He does not know the face, the name and the whereabouts of his Russian mother.
The brothers grew up under the patronage of their paternal grandparents. He became a mockery of his primary school peers for being different. Amid the racial ostracism, he became a problematic, dissatisfied and angry student. During puberty, he developed depression. During the eighth grade, he quit middle school for psychiatric care. He later enrolled in a high school after passing a qualification examination. He dropped out one year later and left the home of his grandparents. His restless grandmother was killed in a car accident in search of the runaway grandson. His younger brother was put behind bars for theft. He resumed living on the street as he hated his grandfather who scolded him for having caused his grandmother to die.
Chung told police he involuntarily became an arsonist out of pangs of guilt on the death of his grandmother and resentment of what he called living in a racist society.
The sad saga is not an isolated case of social ostracism and racism for more than 126,000 mixed-race adolescents in Korea. Adding unregistered youths would put the number higher.
Chung may be “lucky” as he had managed to enroll in high school as his late father is a Korean. For many unregistered kids, especially children born to illegal migrant workers, it is theoretically possible but practically difficult to enroll in elementary and middle school. Under the law, primary and middle schools must accept the enrollment of kids of illegal aliens. But their parents are reluctant for fear of deportation. No law stipulates the acceptance of unregistered kids at high school.
It means many children of illegal foreign workers are outside the formal education system. Without education, many of them are liable to become social headaches in the future. They may not leave Korea. They are the liabilities society will shoulder. The worst scenario is a legion of gangsters or criminals threatening the future of Korea.
Even in school, they become targets of bullying and teasing. Many of them are chronic underachievers academically.
Korea had long boasted that it is one of the world's most ethnically homogeneous nations. This has become a liability, not an asset. It was the late President Park Chung-hee who strengthened the ideology of racial purity to legitimize his dictatorship in the 1960s. In fact, Korea saw interethnic marriages from the Middle Ages. Several Korean clans, including the Deoksu Jang clan and the Gyeongju Seol clan, regard central Asians as their ancestors. In 48 AD, King Kim Su-ro of the Gaya Kingdom took an Indian princess.
Interracial marriages account for 13 percent of all marriages in Korea. In a rural area, interracial marriage has become routine.
Even many “pure” Koreans brought up overseas become social outcasts when they are unable to speak Korean. Even North Korean defectors and their kids face derision and invisible discrimination for their unique northern accent. Even rural kids become laughing stocks for speaking local dialects. Children whose father or mother is Japanese also become targets of cynicism out of the nation's deep animosity toward Japan's colonial rule. Many of the 30,000 Kosians, who have a Korean father and a non-Korean mother or vice versa, are struggling under cultural parochialism. Discrimination is most serious for those whose fathers are African.
Koreans are proud of Fleur Pellerin becoming the first ethnic Korean to join the French Cabinet. She was adopted in 1973 to French parents six months after her birth.
Former American football star Hines E. Ward is a role model. The nagging question is whether they would have become successful if they had received education in Korea. Korea needs to learn American cultural diversity as the engine of national growth and social harmony.
The government needs to institute a multifaceted program to promote cultural diversity and discourage lingering racial discrimination. The starting point is the legislation of an anti-racism law. A revision of school textbooks is necessary so that students make it a habit to embrace peers of different colors. Universities need to allot a quota for minority students. Korea needs the anti-racism law as the number of foreigners will more than double to 3 million by 2030.
Lee Chang-sup is the executive managing director of The Korea Times. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.